Children throughout the US and the world suffer child abuse or neglect enabled by religious ideology every day. The effects of this maltreatment are serious and long-term, and for some, they are fatal. Religious child maltreatment can occur in any religious environment, yet it’s important to understand which children are at the greatest risk.
Religious organizations in the US collectively have paid billions of dollars settling lawsuits with those they have harmed. High-profile cases of religious child maltreatment regularly appear in the news. You can find memoirs written by survivors who grew up in just about every religious, spiritual, or cultic group.
But who is advocating for child victims and adult survivors? The CFFP is the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of religious child maltreatment. Unfortunately, RCM statistics are hard to come by. States do not closely track cases, including those in which law enforcement or Child Protective Services are involved.
However, some studies and statistics do make clear that the problem is real and pervasive:
- A 1984 study reviewing the health status of children in cults showed that these religious groups had unusually high incidences of physical abuse, sleep deprivation, and medical neglect.(1)
- A 1984 survey of Quaker families revealed that Quaker fathers reported more acts of violence toward their children than did fathers nationally, and Quaker sibling violence was significantly higher than sibling violence rates reported nationally.(2)
- A 1995 study that surveyed mental health professionals found that certain kinds of allegations of abuse fell under 3 categories: torturing or killing a child to rid him or her of evil, withholding needed medical care for religious reasons, and abusing a child under the cover of a religious role.(3)
- A 1998 study published in Pediatrics looked at 172 child deaths occurring in church groups that strongly promoted “faith healing” to cure illness and found that the medical conditions of 140 children would have yielded a 90% survival rate had they received medical care.(4)
- A 1999 study showed that the more ideologically conservative parents are, the more likely they are to have positive attitudes toward physically punishing children and the more important religion is to parents, the more likely they are to have attitudes that devalue and verbally abuse children.(5)
- A 2003 study showed that adults who experienced “religion-related” abuse in childhood suffered from more serious psychological problems than those who experienced abuse in which religion was not a factor.(6)
- A 2005 study showed that individuals who are extrinsically religious (viewed religiosity as a means for attaining other goals rather than as an end in itself) have an increased risk of perpetrating child physical abuse.(7)
- A 2008 study concluded that conservative Protestants, particularly those who believe in Biblical literalism or inerrancy, physically punish and/or abuse their children more than other Christian denominations.(8)
- A 2008 study stated that theological beliefs drive conservative Christians to promote the physical punishment of children, namely those surrounding the perceived need to correct children’s “sinfulness” as a way to save them from eternal damnation.(9)
- A 2015 study examined 249 cases of “religion-related” child maltreatment reported to social service agencies, police departments, and prosecutors’ offices nationwide. In conclusion, researchers stated “religion-related child abuse and neglect have received little attention from social scientists” and called for “greater research attention to these important offenses against children.”(10)
- A 2019 grand jury investigation of 6 Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania revealed that more than 300 priests had sexually abused children over a period of 7 decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up. 1,000 child victims were identified but the investigation estimated that there were thousands more.
- Michael D. Langone and Gary Eisenberg, “Children and Cults,” in Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, ed. Michael D. Langone (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 330.
- Judith L. Brutz and Bron B. Ingoldsby, “Conflict Resolution in Quaker Families,” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 46, no. 1 (February 1984): 21.
- Bette L. Bottoms et al., “In the Name of God: A Profile of Religion-Related Child Abuse,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 51, no. 2 (1995): 91–92.
- Seth M. Asser and Rita Swan, “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect,” Pediatrics, vol. 101, no. 4 (April 1998): 625.
- Shelly Jackson et al., “Predicting Abuse-Prone Parental Attitudes and Discipline Practices in a Nationally Representative Sample,” Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 23, no. 1 (1999): 16–17.
- Bette L. Bottoms et al., “Religion-Related Child Physical Abuse: Characteristics and Psychological Outcomes,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, vol. 8, nos. 1–2 (June 2004): 106.
- Christopher W. Dyslin and Cynthia J. Thomsen, “Religiosity and Risk of Perpetrating Child Physical Abuse: An Empirical Investigation,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, vol. 33, no. 4 (2005): 291.
- Rebecca Socolar et al., “Is religiosity associated with corporal punishment or child abuse?” Southern Medical Journal, Jul;101(7) (2008): 707-10.
- Christopher G. Ellison and Matt Bradshaw, “Religious Beliefs, Sociopolitical Ideology, and Attitudes toward Corporal Punishment,” Journal of Family Issues 30, no. 3 (2008): 324.
- Bette L. Bottoms et al., “Religion-related child maltreatment: A profile of cases encountered by legal and social service agencies,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law, vol. 33, no. 4, (Aug 2015): 561-79.